Pickering Square at the turn of the 20th century was a bit of a sensory overload, packed with carts, wagons and stalls; the wafting odors of cooking sausages, fresh fish and horse manure; newsies hawking the day’s edition of the Bangor Daily News; and street vendors offering up everything from jewelry and clothing to produce and whole sides of beef.
Today, as the city prepares to complete the final steps on another redesign of the historic gathering place in downtown Bangor, there’s very little left from that era — or from any of the other iterations of Pickering Square throughout its nearly two centuries.
When the area first arose in the 1830s, it was largely the work of George Pickering, a prominent Bangor businessman who first built wooden structures along the back side of Main Street and the Kenduskeag Stream. He later built prominent buildings including the Circular Block on Broad Street, now home to Evenroods restaurant and upper-floor apartments — one of the very few Pickering-commissioned buildings not destroyed by fire or torn down.
A large lunch wagon can be seen stationed behind other wagons selling farm produce in Pickering Square in this turn-of-the-century postcard (top left) showing Bangor’s big open-air market (Courtesy of Dick Shaw). A fire (right) burns in Pickering Square on March 29, 1891, (Courtesy of the Bangor Public Library). Later Pickering Square became dominated by a circular brick plaza (bottom left) where people and buses would gather (Courtesy of the Bangor Public Library).
There were many squares full of merchants, food carts and entertainment around downtown Bangor during that era, including East Market Square at the corner of Exchange, Harlow and State streets; Haymarket Square, which stood between Independent and Broad streets; and West Market Square, which remains.
Like the others, Pickering Square welcomed a hodgepodge of people selling their wares, offering services and serving up street food. Farmers brought fresh produce; jewelers sold the latest styles in pocket watches and brooches; fishmongers displayed their catch from Penobscot Bay; and you could get a shoe shine, hear music or snack on hot dogs, candy and peanuts.
It was lively, noisy and filled with the bustling energy of Bangor during its boom years as the “lumber capital of the world.”
Though the carts and stalls remained popular for decades, by the 1930s, city officials and prominent business leaders had cracked down on what they felt was an unsightly and chaotic mess of vendors. The city established a permitted and organized public market in Pickering Square, which lasted for close to 20 years before that too was phased out in the late 1940s.
Much of the area had already been bulldozed to create parking, a necessity with the age of the automobile established, and the era of railroads and trolleys quickly fading into history.
These buildings (left) were demolished to make room for another 104 parking spaces at Pickering Square. By the 1960s, Pickering Square was little more than a parking lot (top and bottom right). Credit: Danny Maher and Carroll Hall / BDN
In fact, by the 1960s, Pickering Square was mostly filled with parked cars — soon to be joined by empty swaths of land, as the urban renewal project of the late 1960s and early 1970s took down old buildings along the nearby Kenduskeag Stream in the name of “progress.”
A few buildings rose up in the 1970s and 1980s, like the KeyBank building and One Merchants Plaza, but for the most part, in that era Pickering Square was little more than a giant parking lot.
That would start to change in the late 1980s, when Bangor City Council approved spending approximately $5 million to build the parking garage, which opened in 1989. A year later, the circular brick plaza and fountain were built, and the bus depot was moved from its longtime headquarters on State Street to the garage.
Children play in Pickering Square during a concert in this 2011 file photo. People dance (right) to the music of Jump City Jazz in this 2013 file photo. Credit: John Clark Russ and Carter F. McCall / BDN
Starting in the 1990s, the brick plaza was the site of many city events — concert series, free movie screenings, rallies, festivals, markets and others — which for a time brought back some of the feel of yesteryear to Pickering Square.
Locals also enjoyed showing out-of-towners a strange acoustic anomaly in the plaza — the Pickering Square “bubble.” You would walk toward the center of the brick circle and start clapping, and once you got around 10 feet away from the center, a very weird thing would start to happen. A high-pitched “squeak” or “ping” sound would accompany each clap. It was never fully explained, and now it’s gone, so it’s just another part of history, like lunch carts and fishmongers.
At the same time, Pickering Square garnered a reputation for being a place where people would loiter and, in some cases, create an unpleasant environment downtown through public intoxication, foul language and fights.
All those things were true, and the tension between a vibrant, safe, business-friendly downtown and the needs of those who are homeless and people with substance use disorder and mental illness continues today, with no clear solution in sight.
In 2016, the city began a long process to redesign the square once again, eventually landing on a plan to create a standalone bus depot where the brick plaza once was, changing the traffic flow and parking garage entry, and ripping up and starting again in the rest of the square.
Work on that project started in 2019, almost 30 years after the last redesign of Pickering Square. With the opening of the bus depot in 2022 and the planned final phase of work slated for later this summer, it might signal a new chapter in a space that once was the heart of downtown Bangor.
Only time will tell if Bangor gets it right this time.